Watkins was riding to a cookout not far from his hometown of Mooresboro, North Carolina, last September when the car slid off a rainy road, overturned and crashed into a utility pole.
The North Carolina Highway Patrol says Watkins' longtime friend — "He was like a big brother," Watkins said — Dache Gossett was ejected from the car and pronounced dead at the scene.
When 6-foot-3, 295-pound Watkins awoke at an area hospital, he learned the horrible news of Gossett's death. While Watkins didn't play last season after the wreck, he vows to bring Gossett's spirit to the field for every snap.
"I've got scars on my arms. I look down on them and I'm reminded," Watkins said.
Watkins was enjoying a free weekend after the Tigers defeated North Carolina State 26-14 in Raleigh. Watkins assisted on a pair of tackles to keep the Tigers undefeated early in the season and couldn't wait to see friends in his small town — Mooresboro is listed as having about 300 residents — before returning to campus.
It would be a week before he made the trip back to Clemson.
The sophomore had hematomas in each leg after he was trapped inside by the fallen pole about two hours as power crews had to turn off the electricity.
Watkins said a fireman at the scene told the player's father, than if he weren't a solidly built 295 pounds, the impact might've broken both legs instead of just leaving him with scrapes, cuts and bruises.
Once Watkins returned to campus, football wasn't a priority and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and the Tigers gave him time to grieve and heal. Swinney didn't push Watkins, a starter in the Tigers' season-opening victory over Georgia, about returning to the field and bolstering a defensive line at the time finding its way.
Watkins was content to enjoy the fellowship of teammates. "It was good to get back to campus and get my mind away from the accident," Watkins said. "They kept me uplifted."
Now, Watkins wants to make an impact on the field, although finding a spot on the team's deep defensive front won't be easy. Clemson was second in the Atlantic Coast Conference with 38 sacks a year ago, led by defensive end Vic Beasley's 13. Five other members of the defensive line had at least one sack and most all those players are back this fall.
But Watkins isn't worried about production or numbers, just giving his all in Gossett's memory.
"You can't really move forward from it. It is always going to be with you because of how tragic it was," Watkins said. "I try to use it as a motivational thing. My friend that passed away was a big Clemson fan, so I am doing it for him as well. I am pretty sure he's looking down telling me to go for it."
If Watkins needs a boost, he'll simply look down at his cleats where he'd written Gossett's nickname "Sheeke," his number "#12," and "RIP."
The two were life-long friends who played high school ball together, Watkins said. The cookout was at the home of a brother of a third friend, Tajae McMullens, the 19-year-old who was driving the vehicle that night.
Watkins said he hit his head against a window and was briefly unconscious. After getting pulled from the wreckage, Watkins was transported to an Asheville, North Carolina hospital.
"Really wasn't scared," he remembered. "Just more in shock than anything. When I woke up I realized I had lost my friend."
Swinney said Watkins has had a strong fall camp and looks like he did a year ago as a rising, young player. "He's had a great summer," the coach said. "He's very, very good."
Watkins, though, is not the same and understands he won't ever be again, no matter what he achieves the rest of his Clemson career.
"It just shows me how quick things can change, how quick your life can be taken away," he said. "It really changed my mind a lot."
Watkins grateful for return to football
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